Beloved Essay Research Paper Many of the

Beloved Essay, Research Paper Many of the characters in Beloved are born into slavery and experience the imposed objectivity of its commodifying ideology. Clearly, as we know from historical and slave narratives, such

Beloved Essay, Research Paper

Many of the characters in Beloved are born into slavery and experience the imposed objectivity

of its commodifying ideology. Clearly, as we know from historical and slave narratives, such

objectivity does not exclude all possibility of experiencing some degree of subjectivity. In

Beloved, however, denial and oppression of black identity by the larger slave-owning society

leads to an internalization of this colonizing discourse and subsequently to an inability for some,

and for others a constant struggle, to develop a self-empowered subjectivity when free from

physical slavery. Thus, although the end of slavery signals the beginning of a “post” colonial(1)

period for African Americans, their status continues to be defined by slavery’s colonial

ideologies.(2) The imposed perception of themselves as commodified beings, when internalized,

results in their continued struggle to develop an empowered, agentive sense of self.

In Yearning, bell hooks writes about black subjectivity as “an oppositional worldview, a

consciousness, an identity, a standpoint that exists not only as that struggle which also opposes

dehumanization but as that movement which enables creative, expansive self-actualization”

(15). For Sethe, Beloved’s central character, self-actualization, or the development of

subjectivity, can be realized only outside the limits of a colonial discourse and within a

collectively defined alternate discourse signifying individual empowerment. This alternative

discourse, I argue, is found in the free black community to which Sethe flees. But her

subjectivity is realized only when she becomes a full member of her community. Membership

depends on both Sethe’s and the community’s recognition of internalized ideologies of oppression.

Morrison’s text, then, can be read as postcolonial(3) because it delineates a process of

self-liberation through communal support within the colonial context of slavery.

In a postcolonial analysis of Beloved, the work of Homi Bhabha(4) and Gloria Anzaldua helps us

to read Sethe’s self-actualization as a resistive process against objectifying colonial definitions

of black identity. Anzaldua’s definition of “mestiza consciousness”(5) complements Bhabha’s

definition of the shifting positionalities within the “colonial subject” and the formation of a

colonial subjectivity through the colonial fetish and stereotype. For Anzaldua, all women of

color have the potential to reflect a mestiza consciousness. As an oppressed woman of color,

Sethe has this potential. In Sethe, then, the text develops a mestiza character. Together, the

theories of Anzaldua and Bhabha serve to recontextualize Sethe’s motivations for murdering her

child, the subsequent ostracism by her community, her obsessive love for Beloved, and her final

release from the ideological confines of colonial commodification. This recontextualization of

Sethe’s story defines Beloved as a mestiza text.

Within the postcolonial framework through which I read Beloved,(6) resisting the colonial

perception of self as commodified inferior is part of what Satya P. Mohanty terms

“decolonization.” Developing an empowered subjectivity involves learning to define oneself

through a perspective uninformed by dominant definitions of black identity. Acquiring a

perspective outside of colonial constructs of inferiorized subject positions subverts these

constructs and thus decolonizes the self. The process of decolonization is an important part of

this mestiza text because the main character moves from a limiting “counterstance” position,

signifying a mere inversion of colonial roles, to mestiza consciousness, signifying an

alternative discourse outside colonial ideologies. Significantly, in Beloved decolonization occurs

in a communal context. The book’s central characters begin to define themselves against a

colonially defined and internalized isolation, fear, or even pride only with the support of others

who also have experienced oppression. Attempts at self-liberation fail when they are not

founded on mutual trust between individuals or support from community.

Furthermore, decolonization is not only an individual process within a communal context, but

also a collective occurrence. The text’s emphasis on “rememory” as collective(7) as well as

individual theorizes a process of collective decolonization.(8) Linda Krumholz’s definition of

slavery begins to address the idea of collectivity as conceptualized in Beloved. She defines

slavery, and thus implicitly the nation’s colonialist history, as a “national trauma” (396) not

limited to individuals or to African Americans. I read Krumholz’s concept of national trauma as

specifically informed by a colonialist past and a neocolonialist present. The national, historical

process of healing and rememory identified by Krumholz becomes, in my definition of

rememory, a process of collective decolonization.

Morrison’s text implicitly speaks to the need for collective decolonization in its focus on

rememory and the necessity of confronting the past’s unresolved issues. A postcolonial reading

highlights the implications of the text for alternative conceptualizations of national history.(9)

Reading slavery explicitly as a colonial institution forces a certain kind of rememory: slavery

is a historical reality for every U.S. citizen, not just for contemporary African Americans.

Importantly, Morrison’s historical revisioning, which calls for collective rememory, defines

the U.S. as an oppressive colonialist nation, thus challenging official historical narratives of

democratic benevolence. It also places the U.S. as a nation in a parallel position to Sethe and

slavery; Sethe and her relationship to slavery as a colonialist institution embodies in

microcosm a specifically postcolonial facet of Morrison’s historical rememory. In this equation,

Sethe represents national identity as defined by colonial constructs. Just as the colonialist

nature of national history manifests itself through the institutionalization of slavery, Sethe’s

act of infanticide manifests her internalization of the oppressive ideologies that justify her

enslavement. As a result, her story is about learning how to resist effectively, how to develop an

empowered rather than a destructive subjectivity. Just as she needs to confront unresolved

issues in her past, the nation, in an act of collective decolonization, also must confront the

colonialist past in order to change the neocolonialist present.

Morrison’s revisioning, read within a postcolonial framework, is radical in its conclusion to the

national narrative embodied in Sethe’s story. Her decolonized subjectivity does not signify

power over others, but empowerment within a context of communal support. Thus Morrison, in

creating an alternative outside binary colonialist constructs for Sethe’s developing subjectivity,

also creates an alternative for U.S. history. She not only rewrites the past, but in a reading of

Sethe as representative of an alternative national identity, Morrison offers an alternative for

the national future. By this logic, the U.S. need not follow the colonialist trajectory it has been

simultaneously following and creating. Morrison thus denaturalizes ideologies of nationhood that

require an oppressive, strictly boundaried stance. Morrison’s concept of rememory, read as

postcolonial, challenges and begins to redefine traditional definitions of nationhood, of an

isolated yet dominant imperialist power, one boundaried both internationally and domestically.

Sethe learns she cannot be truly “free” without undergoing a process of decolonization, defined

by the novel as contextualized, necessarily, in her African American community. If Sethe learns

to decolonize herself through and within a communal context, then in the parallel between Sethe

and national identity, the nation must re-think its position in an international context. At the

very least, Morrison’s historical revisioning speaks to the need to alter national

self-definitions, representations, and positionings in a global “community.”

The novel emphasizes Sethe’s contact with slavery’s commodification that results in

psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage. Bhabha’s concept of the “colonial subject” helps

theorize the specific nature of this system:

The construction of the colonial subject in discourse, and the exercise of

colonial power through discourse, demands an articulation of forms of

difference–racial and sexual. Such an articulation becomes crucial if it

is held that the body is always simultaneously (if conflictually) inscribed

in both the economy of pleasure and desire and the economy of discourse,

domination and power. (67)

Because in the colonial economy, of slavery the black woman, both metaphorically and visually,

embodies the interconnection between “the economy of pleasure and desire” and “the economy of

domination and power,” she also represents the “difference” demanded by colonial discourse. In

Morrison’s text, Sethe, the black female slave, represents this difference as racial and sexual “other.”

This difference, once created to justify colonial domination, must be continuously reiterated in order

to rationalize colonial force.

This constructed difference is re-enacted through Sethe’s body by the schoolteacher and his


I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking on my

breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher watching and

writing it up. I don’t want to know or have to remember that. I have other

things to do: worry about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age

and sickness not to speak of love. But her brain was not interested in the

future. (70)

Here we have white othering of a black woman and the resulting damage of a fetishized identity.

The schoolteacher observes Sethe’s rape and makes it a discursive act, exploiting Sethe as a racial

and sexual other in order to re-write her identity as that of a subhuman creature, bestial rather than

human. Sethe, then, experiences the fetishization of herself and her body by the schoolteacher and

his nephews. In having his nephews act out, on Sethe’s body, the constructed degradation of one

racially and sexually othered, the schoolteacher reinforces slavery’s colonial discourse through his

own, simultaneously enacted, discursivity. Sethe’s personhood, as it has been allowed to exist under

slavery, is reduced further to animality.

Bhabha differentiates between the sexual fetish and the sexualized “fetish of colonial discourse”

(78), locating the latter in the ambivalent space (72) occupied by the colonized. This space is “in

between” an imposed identity and the reality of their humanity for the colonized and between the

recognized and the disavowed, between fear and desire for the colonizers. The tropes of the sexual

fetish are present in the colonial fetish, but syncretized with certain tropes of colonialist experience

and identity to embody the larger socio-political context of colonial relations. In this context, the

white schoolteacher inhabits the in between space of the colonizer, thus needing to rationalize

slavery’s dominating and oppressive ideologies in a discursive act that also serves to justify his

position within these ideologies. For Sethe, the fetishization of her body by the white schoolteacher

and his nephews causes psychic fragmentation that continues to thwart the development of her

subjectivity after she leaves slavery. Sethe wants to concentrate on her future; however, her

commodified status, dramatized fetishistically, forms a barrier which prevents her from resisting

objectifying colonial influence.

Sethe’s community both perpetuates the legacy of slavery, demonstrating a collective

internalization of the commodification discourse, and plays an important role in the process of

the development of her subjectivity against colonial lessons of disempowerment. Morrison


Sethe had had twenty-eight days … of unslaved life…. Days of healing,

ease and real-talk. Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty

other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done: of

feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better….

All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with

the day…. Bit by bit … along with the others, she had claimed herself.

Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was

another. (95)

Sethe lives an “unslaved life” for only twenty-eight days, although she never returns to literal

slavery. Consequently, Morrison defines an unslaved life as a life with the freedom to develop one’s

subjectivity. This process is closely bound to inclusion in and participation with one’s community.

Sethe frees herself, but she does not “claim ownership of that freed self” alone. The past does not

hold the power to frustrate the growth of her subjectivity when development is part of a collective

endeavor. Her people “teach” her how to be herself because, until this moment, she learns, through

coercion, lessons of invisibility and silence. The necessary reciprocity of communal living and the

continuous learning experience of constant communication with others help Sethe learn to see

herself as an empowered subject within a supportive community rather than the inferior other within

colonial ideology.

Morrison, however, does not portray a simplistic image of communal perfection. She writes instead

about the warped codes of morality that eventually cause a collective desertion of Sethe when she

most needs support. Because the generous invitation to a bountiful feast at Baby Suggs’s is taken as

a sign of pride, the community hopes and waits for Sethe’s downfall. The community, therefore,

begins to withdraw its enveloping and empowering support the day after the party:

nobody ran on ahead…. to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode

in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize …. Like a flag

hoisted this righteousness telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip,

the fist, the lie, long before it went public. Nobody warned them … some

… thing–like … meanness let them stand aside, or not pay attention.


The people of the community tacitly withdraw their support by denying Sethe, without warning,

access to a system of communication developed by and for the community. Because of the

chronological order of events–the party, the silence of the community, the appearance of the white

schoolteacher at 124, Sethe’s murder of her daughter, and the subsequent ostracism of Sethe from

the community–we can isolate the moment when Sethe’s troubles begin as the moment when the

community decides to withdraw its support.

As Charles Scruggs points out, “Somehow the members of the black community imagine that

Baby Suggs has not suffered in slavery as they have suffered, and this ignorance of their mutual

history makes mutual trust impossible” (103). Mutual trust is essential for the collective

formation of an empowering alternate discourse. Their mutual distrust both reflects the

internalized lessons of commodification and negates the mutual support necessary for the

development of individual and communal subjectivity. Because the concept of history is linked

closely in this text to slavery and the specific context of a colonized past, a denial of the

collective nature of this experience keeps them from challenging and restructuring definitive

ideologies as a community. Moreover, the community’s need to see a successful black family’s

downfall indirectly causes Sethe to perform the act for which it cannot morally forgive her.

Why does Morrison so carefully outline and emphasize the communal responsibility at which

the community fails? Anzaldua’s concept of borderlands, which parallels the text’s theorization

of the relationship between self and community, helps address this question. According to her

definition, border culture is created by “the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third[,]

… a border culture.” Anzaldua explains:

[a] borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional

residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of

transition…. The only `legitimate’ inhabitants are those in power, the

whites and those who align themselves with whites. Tension[,] …

ambivalence[,] and unrest reside there and death is no stranger. (3-4)

The community in which Sethe lives is similar in several important aspects to the “borderland”

defined above. The free black community in the nineteenth century represents a borderland between

two more established cultures: the black slave culture and the free white slave-owning culture. Like

Anzaldua’s borderland, the free black community in Beloved has no fixed, institutionalized,

organized moral and social codes of behavior and thought. It can be defined as an “unnatural

boundary” because it is a relatively new community with no social precedents, whose vulnerable

existence is compounded by unrelenting white hatred and disrespect. Living “in between” two

conflicting cultures results in the tension, ambivalence, and unrest that Anzaldua describes.

Anzaldua also describes how “[t]ribal rights over those of the individual insured the survival of the

tribe…. The welfare of the family, the community, and the tribe is more important than the welfare of

the individual. The individual exists first as kin–a sister, a father, a padrino–and last as self” (18).

Beloved’s free black community can be compared to Anzaldua’s tribe, to a culture that needs to

protect itself from, while existing within, a dominant colonial culture. Compounding this problem is

the fact that the colonial culture legitimizes only the selfless state of slavery for blacks. The

community, therefore, struggles constantly for the right, the opportunity, and the freedom to exist.

Paradoxically, it must continue the process that the dominant culture has begun–the suppression of

black individual subjectivity–in order to validate its position in society and the choices it has made.

Thus, as I will argue below, Sethe is punished severely for trying to assert her own and her

daughter’s rights to subjectivity by a community still operating within a ruling ideology that

commodifies black personhood.

Morrison articulates another motivation behind the communal ostracism of Sethe in the

following excerpt:

Whitepeople believed that … under every dark skin was a jungle…. In a

way … they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying

to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human …

the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the

jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable)

place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. (198-99)

The continued internalization of being labeled “other” leads to the denial of black individual voice

and subjectivity, thereby twisting the free black community’s moral code to the point where it will

turn on one of its own. Internalization of white fear and hate intensifies the tension and ambivalence

that Anzaldua describes as part of a border culture. Because of the internalization of a white colonial

morality and the constant ambivalence of a border culture, the free black community

self-destructively measures and judges Sethe by a morality that denies subjectivity.

The fact that Sethe’s community operates under an internalized system oppressive to black identity

informs her motivations for killing her child. Because her community chooses to withdraw its

support, it denies Sethe the opportunity to escape from the schoolteacher as he rides to 124 with the

sheriff. The community’s inaction forces Sethe to try to save her children from a life of imposed

silence and denied selfhood by some other means. Sethe “flew, snatching up her children like a

hawk on the wing … her face beaked … her hands worked like claws … she collected them every

which way … into the woodshed” (157) where she tries “to kill her children” (158). When Paul D

learns about Sethe’s act, he is repulsed. He cannot understand that infanticide is the only possibility,

the only course of action open to Sethe within a colonial discourse. Her internalization of the

lessons of commodification encourages Sethe to act, in a highly problematic attempt to save her

children from commodification, as if they are not only extensions of herself, but also her

possessions. In an internal dialogue with Beloved, Sethe thinks,

Some other way, he said. Let schoolteacher haul us away, I guess, to

measure your behind before he tore it up? I have felt what it felt like and

nobody … is going to make you feel it too. Not you, not none of mine, and

when I tell you you mine, I also mean I’m yours. I wouldn’t draw breath

without my children…. My plan was to take us all to the other side where

my own ma’am is. (203)

By killing Beloved, Sethe refuses to allow her daughter to be objectified and commodified by a

colonialist culture. To Sethe, killing her child saves her not only from the physical suffering of

slavery but also from its “measuring,” which signifies an appropriation of discourse and an

oppression of black identity.

Despite its protective motivation, however, Sethe’s act effectively denies her daughter the chance to

live. It signifies her appropriation of the potential of her daughter’s yet unrealized subjectivity.

Bhabha’s theory of the colonial subject defines Sethe’s act as limited by its reaction to a

commodifying ideology. “It is always in relation to the place of the Other that colonial desire is

articulated: the phantasmic space of possession that no one subject can singly or fixedly occupy,

and therefore permits the dream of the inversion of roles” (44). Through his theorization of the

colonial subject, representing both the colonized and the colonizer, Bhabha defines the colonial

subject position as shifting rather than fixed. In the creation of a colonial subjecthood, colonial

discourse forms a space in which the positionalities of master and slave not only define each other,

but can shift into an inversion of roles. Such an inversion of roles cannot be subversive because it

remains within and therefore defined by a colonialist paradigm of domination and commodification.

Although several critics read Sethe’s act as resistive,(10) Bhabha’s concept of the colonial subject,

which enables a colonial contextualization of her act, defines her resistance as limited by the

isolationist ideologies of a Western colonialism. Bhabha’s definition of a shifting colonial subject

positionality allows a reading of Sethe’s identity in relation to the ruling colonial paradigm by

foregrounding Sethe’s changing position within a colonially constructed value system. In a reading

of Beloved as postcolonial, Sethe’s act becomes a desperate attempt at liberation within a context of

limited choices because of her community’s re-enactment of a colonial system’s power relations.

In murdering her daughter, Sethe attempts, in Anzaldua’s terms, a “counterstance”(11) against

the colonial forces that coercively have defined her as property and that threaten to do the same

to her children. Her counterstance exemplifies her attempt to subvert the oppressive system by

a kind of inversion of roles. In this case, Sethe tries to control her children’s fate by killing

them, thus occupying the colonizer’s commodifying role. Subsequently, the community’s

manifestation of collective internalization of an objectifying ideology (the ostracism of Sethe)

creates a “domino effect” which leads to Sethe’s reinscription within the ideological confines of a

colonial discourse. As Morrison writes, “Those twenty-eight happy days were followed by

eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life” (173). Sethe’s “solitary life” is static; there

is no potential for personal growth. Sethe describes her life in those eighteen years as

“unlivable” (173). Because of her decision to kill her child and thus protect her from the

“unlivable” life of denied subjectivity in slavery, she herself returns to a life in which she is

unable to continue learning to “claim her freed self.”

The redundant cyclicity of “eighteen years of solitary life” cannot end, and Sethe cannot break

through the stasis of her existence, until she can step outside the confines of the dominant

colonial discourse. She cannot do so without finding resolution to her relationship with her

daughter. Beloved returns to 124 for the same reason she has haunted Sethe, to force her

mother to confront her past. The act that ends her life, her mother denying Beloved her own

identity, begins a cycle from which neither mother nor daughter can escape without some

movement towards resolution. When Beloved returns as a visible and tangible presence, Sethe

no longer can ignore and deny her painful past. Sethe is incapable of personal growth for many

years because she refuses to face her own commodification and its internalization. Instead,

Sethe’s denial of the colonial forces in her life continues to block the development of her

subjectivity. Within the narrative, Beloved’s physical presence and the ensuing interactive

relationship it begins between mother and daughter eventually force Sethe to acknowledge the

internalized colonization that she has hitherto ignored.

The first month Sethe and Beloved spend together seems idyllic (240). Soon, however, the

unresolved tension dominates the atmosphere: “it was Beloved who made demands. Anything she

wanted she got, and when Sethe ran out of things to give her, Beloved invented desire…. the mood

changed and the arguments began…. She took the best of everything–first” (240-41). Beloved

knows only desire; she knows only what she lacks. But she cannot be satisfied; her unbalanced

self, consisting only of desire, is inexhaustibly hungry. Sethe responds by trying to satisfy

Beloved’s desire: “Sethe played all the harder with Beloved, who never got enough of anything”

(240). Sethe is driven by the guilt of the past, by the memory of what she did to her daughter,

which causes her to focus obsessively on Beloved and neglect all other aspects of her personality

and her life:

Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her

reasons: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own

life. That she would trade places any day. Give up her life, every minute

and hour of it, to take back just one of Beloved’s tears. (241-42)

Sethe’s obsessive focus is as unbalanced as Beloved’s desire. In trying to erase a past that cannot be

erased by wanting to exchange her life for Beloved’s pain, she succeeds only in re-emphasizing the

limitation of her own subjectivity. Her obsession cannot lead to a positive resolution between

herself and Beloved because it mimics the binary paradigms of a colonial discourse of


While Sethe must deal with her past, she cannot deal with it at the expense of her present existence

and through the continued denial of her own internalization of a commodifying ideology. Sethe and

Beloved are “locked in a love that wore everybody out” (243). The desperate emotional interaction

between Sethe and Beloved intensifies as they continue trapped in a cycle with no relief. Sethe “sat

in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up

with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur” (250). Sethe still

attempts to erase the past, this time by taking the place of Beloved herself. The past and the

objectifying appropriation it represents, however, cannot be erased; Sethe must acknowledge her

own complicity in colonial appropriations within a binary system of violent possession and only

thus be enabled to create an alternate discourse of self-empowerment.